ELLA FITZGERALD Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Song Book (Speakers Corner)
A masterpiece, a masterclass, hype it however you feel appropriate, but what a sustained display of genius this record is from all involved. With Cole Porter’s songs, Ella Fitzgerald’s interpretations and Buddy Bregman’s arrangements (all of 25 years old at the time, it shocks me that his name isn’t as instantly recognisable as, for example, Nelson Riddle’s, perhaps explained by his defection to television, later becoming, of all things, head of entertainment at Rediffusion) how could this possibly be regarded as anything other than a peerless example of the art of popular song?
Perhaps the key to this album is the fact that Ella communicates. After producer Norman Granz played Porter the entire album, he remarked “My, what marvellous diction that girl has”; you can hear, and, crucially, understand, every word. She doesn’t get sidetracked into lengthy scat improvisation; given the rigidly controlled nature of the arrangements, this isn’t the time and place for such digressions. What familiarity I have with these works I’ve gleaned through ersatz interpretations by modern day would-be sophisticates such as Bryan Ferry and Rod Stewart, who aren’t really fit to hold the sheet music up to the versions collected here. In terms of understanding and exploring the standards repertoire that informed so much of the instrumental jazz that was being recorded at the time, this album should be issued alongside of, or maybe even ahead of, “Kind Of Blue” to anyone considering ‘getting into’ jazz.
The arrangements are sensitively modulated to match the mood of each song: they can be sparse, pared back to voice and piano (“Miss Otis Regrets” being a particularly notable example), thrilling big band settings or sumptuous full orchestrations. “Anything Goes” has a subtle mischievousness, “Too Darn Hot” sizzles with topicality, namedropping Kinsey, and “I Get A Kick Out Of You” is more sincere declaration than glitzy showstopper (and how scandalous its uncoded drug references, and the medium, if not low, morals of “Always True To You In My Fashion”, seem to modern ears). “All Through The Night”, with its gentle electric guitar, is languid and relaxing, and listening to “Just One Of Those Things” emphasises – as does pretty much every selection – how effortless these performances seem, no doubt because of much superhuman effort expended to make them appear so. Possibly the greatest surprises lurk in the more maudlin material such as “Get Out Of Town”, far from the fingerpopping gaiety that might be expected of the project. After being introduced to “Love For Sale” via versions by Cannonball Adderley and Dexter Gordon, it’s instructive to finally hear it sung, here performed as a sad, slow sway.
This is pretty much a record that’s beyond criticism. There’s so much that’s right about it that it leaves the listener gasping at its scope and scale, and presumably the immense expense involved in its production: after all, it’s a 32 track double album from a time when the long player was, if not still in its infancy, certainly still in short trousers. Perhaps that explains what might be its only potential weakness: it doesn’t have the feel of a sequenced suite of songs, unlike, say, Frank Sinatra’s misery albums or Peggy Lee’s “Black Coffee”, seeming more like the songs have been flung together in any old order. That apart, it’s fabulous.
Speakers Corner have done their customary fine job in bringing it back to vinyl, the packaging, right down to the labels, feeling like a modern day attempt to remanufacture the original pressing. “This is a panoramic true high fidelity record”, boasts the front cover, and, although there’s arguably a limit on just how much panorama can be extracted from these pre-stereo recordings, they sound magnificent in this edition.
ELLA FITZGERALD Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Rodgers And Hart Song Book (Speakers Corner)
As with Ella's earlier Cole Porter compendium, it's near impossible to discuss this 1956 recording for any length of time without using the word definitive. (See what I mean?) You could pick any one of these 27 songs and find in it the virtues embodied by the whole collection: Buddy Bregman's sumptuous, sympathetic arrangements, which cover all the waterfront from vast orchestral epics to simple voice and guitar pieces, Rodgers and Hart's fastidious songcraft and Ms Fitzgerald's marvellous voice and, crucially, flawless diction.
"Have You Met Miss Jones" subverts its titular gender expectations, Ella greeting Sir Jones with the gentlest suggestion of a chuckle in her voice. Beneath its breezy insouciance "The Lady Is A Tramp" conjures up a positive, independent message from its string of lyrical negatives, all won'ts and don'ts. With a title like that it might be a bit far-fetched to consider it an early feminist anthem but maybe it's getting there. "Manhattan"'s inverted snobbery and "I Wish I Were In Love Again"s contrarian topsy-turvy sass are equally charming and "Johnny One Note" demonstrates frivolity with no loss of artistry. It's on the set's sadder songs that Ella really shines, though, namely an utterly entrancing "Spring Is Here", a lovely "It Never Entered My Mind" and the weary, shabby "Ten Cents A Dance". It was only when listening to "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" for the nth time that I first heard what sounds like a xylophone way back in the distance; Bregman's arrangements are a never-ending journey of discovery, it seems. And it's almost sobering to think that Ella recorded her version of "Blue Moon" in the same month that Elvis released his markedly different interpretation, like some kind of cultural relay race.
Although quick to run out of superlatives when discussing the music, sonically this isn't one of Speakers Corner' finest reissues. It's mostly great, but spoiled by an excess of sibilance, a trait apparent on their "Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Song Book" but magnified unpleasantly here. It's a shame, because otherwise this release positively radiates Speakers Corner's typical painstaking attention to authenticity.
ELLA FITZGERALD Newport Jazz Festival Live At Carnegie Hall July 5, 1973 (Pure Pleasure)
Its cumbersome title is the least of this double album’s problems. It’s a strange clash between showbizzy sense of occasion and Ella’s naturally self-deprecating nature, both of which nibble away at the music in the middle from opposite directions to deleterious effect. There’s also an uncharacteristic roughness to the recording, plagued with hiss, buzz and other noises off, that undermines the presentation of the event, and I could throttle the audience member who unleashes a tropical bird-like whistle at the conclusion of just about every song. The album doesn’t even attempt to maintain the illusion of a complete, in-sequence set: fade-outs isolate each song in its allotted pool of audience reaction, the sleevenote controversially explaining that “Wisely, producer John Hammond has rearranged her program for these recordings”. With somewhat more sagacity, the current CD reissue appears to reinstate the evening’s programme as it was performed, adding around 50 minutes of music in the process. It all seems as uncomfortably uncharacteristic and out-of-place as the glasses and neo-psychedelic dress Ella wears on the cover.
Happily, the hodge-podged mish-mashed result is not without its moments. When performing standards with just Joe Pass on guitar or pianist Ellis Larkins for accompaniment, Ella can shrink the Carnegie Hall to the size of a neighbourhood jazz club. “You Turned The Tables On Me”, in particular, is a barfly anthem to rival any Sinatra rendition of “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”, and she shakes some dignity out of the schmaltzy “People”. A medley of “Taking A Chance On Love” and “I’m In The Mood For Love” is infused with just the right amount of sass and pizazz, Ella’s vocal (and how!) securely sited just this side of bellowing.
In the demerit column, though, there’s “Any Old Blues”, in which Ella rapidly tires of the song itself, spending much of the rest of her performance free-associating about how she in no way considers herself to be a blues singer. Goofy and endearing as it might have been on the night, it’s too glib and dismissive to withstand repeated listening. Similarly, how well scat showcase “Lemon Drop” plays will be dependent on your feelings towards Ella’s vocal improvisations. I find them excruciating, usually, and this one raises no exception. Ella disappears entirely for the third side of the album, ceding the stage to an ad hoc ensemble the sleeve insists be called The Jazz At Carnegie All-Stars. They essay a pleasant amble through some medleyfied standards, especially when the minor key mood darkens perceptibly at the opening of “’Round Midnight”, but the interminable “C Jam Blues” is as inspiring as its title; I was somewhat shocked to learn that it’s a Duke Ellington standard.
The album doesn’t even redeem itself by sounding fantastic. Whilst I have no doubt that the usually reliable Pure Pleasure label have made the most of the source material available to them, the best, backhanded compliment I can pay is that the excellence of their vinyl pressing allows the listener to luxuriate in the buzz, hum and hiss of the evening as if they were actually there.
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong